Broadcasters narrow in on indecency

April 21, 2021
Wall Street Journal
By Amy Schatz

LAS VEGAS -- Perhaps it is only fitting that broadcasters gathered here for their annual convention are obsessed with indecency.

Facing possibly higher fines and tougher enforcement over profanities or sexual content, members of the National Association of Broadcasters are wondering: What will Kevin Martin do?

As one of five members of the Federal Communications Commission, Mr. Martin has been a critic of broadcasters pushing the bounds of what is "decent." If his predecessor, Michael Powell, was a draftee in the crackdown on foul language on broadcast radio and television, Mr. Martin was an enthusiastic volunteer.

But now as FCC chairman, Mr. Martin must walk a fine line between his public views, which are popular with social conservatives, and the political reality that broadcasters have a way of getting Congress to listen when they are unhappy with regulators. Media companies want to see fewer, not more, decency requirements.

Broadcasters were hoping for a signal of the 38-year-old lawyer's intent this week, but he canceled an appearance here because of the death of his father. At a recent gathering of cable-industry executives, he dodged the issue, saying the agency is a "creature of Congress" and that it is up to lawmakers to decide how much power the FCC has to regulate standards for television and radio broadcasts. When consumers complain to the FCC about material on the radio or television, the agency can investigate and may levy fines that are set by Congress.

Broadcasters, who were assessed a record $7.9 million in fines for indecency by the FCC last year, are bracing for more criticism -- by the FCC and from members of Congress -- and more fines. During a panel at the conference, Tony Vinciquerra, chief executive of News Corp.'s Fox Networks Group, asked: "What person is going to criticize a legislator for trying to protect children?"

But some broadcasters gathered here say they are frustrated that the line between what is acceptable and what isn't is so vague -- and that cable and satellite TV and radio don't have to worry about the issue. "Congress and the FCC have done a very poor job of explaining what indecency is," says Mark Mays, chief executive of Clear Channel Communications, which dumped shock jock Howard Stern and set a zero-tolerance policy for profane language after FCC criticism.

If Mr. Martin's past statements are any guide -- and they are all broadcasters have to go on for now -- he will be tougher than Mr. Powell, who ratcheted up indecency fines and enforcement only under political duress.

A former White House and FCC staffer appointed to the commission in 2001, Mr. Martin took exception to the FCC's decision not to fine Fox television stations for a scene in an episode of the detective drama "Keen Eddie" in June 2003. The scene involved a prostitute removing her shirt to sexually arouse a horse so thieves could sell its semen on the black market. To Mr. Martin, that was clearly indecent. "Despite my colleagues' assurance that there appeared to be a safe distance between the prostitute and the horse, I remain uncomfortable," Mr. Martin wrote, in one of several instances where he and Mr. Powell disagreed.

Mr. Martin is a proponent of reinstating the "family viewing hour" -- family-friendly programming at 8 p.m., five nights a week -- and fining violators of decency standards "per utterance" instead of per show. Radio and television broadcast stations, but not cable-TV networks, now are barred from running programs featuring graphic sexual or excretory functions from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., when children are most likely watching.

Local-station owners say they are nervous about Mr. Martin's view that network affiliates can't simply pass the blame to the networks. After the FCC fined Fox stations $1.2 million for airing a "Married by America" episode in April 2003 in which partygoers licked whipped cream off strippers and a man on hands and knees was, according to the FCC, "playfully" spanked by women, Mr. Martin said the fine "highlights the need to clarify that affiliates have the right and responsibility to reject inappropriate programming." Unlike managers of affiliates of Viacom Inc.'s CBS, who didn't have prior knowledge of singer Janet Jackson's 2004 Super Bowl "wardrobe malfunction," Fox station managers could have screened the episode before broadcast, the FCC said.

"Obviously, fines going up to half a million [dollars] are a little scary for us, especially if it's a situation, like the Fox situation, where they did not prescreen that prime-time programming," says Gary Chapman, chairman and CEO of LIN TV Corp., which owns or operates 23 television stations in the U.S. "If we have to screen every network program, we'll have to hire people to do this, and it really is a labor-intensive project."

Broadcasters prefer to rely on voluntary ratings systems and technology like the V-chip, which gives parents the ability to block programming. But the Parents Television Council, a socially conservative group that aims to remove racy content from the airwaves, says that isn't enough. The FCC "can do more, and I suspect under Kevin Martin, they will do more," says L. Brent Bozell, the group's president and among those who fought for Mr. Martin's promotion to chairman.

Broadcasters anticipate a move in Congress this year to raise fines for indecency. Some industry executives argue that if they can't stop that, they will at least try to persuade Congress to extend the rules to cable and satellite broadcasters who are now exempt. Senate and House leaders have signaled interest in extending indecency rules to cable and satellite providers, but there has been no agreement on timing for doing that.

The heightened scrutiny and concern about offending viewers and the FCC already is having an effect on what television stations broadcast. Last summer, expletive-laced eulogies at the memorial service for Pat Tillman, the former football star killed in military action, prompted at least one television station to abruptly drop the broadcast.

If the memorial service had happened before the controversial Super Bowl half-time show, the station would still have switched to different programming, "based on viewer sensibilities," says Steve Hammel, vice president and general manager of KPHO-TV, a CBS affiliate in Phoenix. Stations have a duty to their communities to avoid indecent programming, he says, but viewers will decide which stations are being responsible. He isn't persuaded more government regulation is the answer: "I'd love for us to apply the rules of common sense."

Media oligarchs let airwaves become vile

In your April 21 article "Broadcasters Narrow In on Indecency," you write that FCC Chairman Kevin Martin's public views on indecency on the airwaves are "popular with social conservatives," a term you also use to describe the Parents Television Council, which seeks to remove what you call "racy content" from the airwaves. But this content would more accurately be described as vile, so much so that neither the Journal nor other newspapers would undertake to explicitly describe much of it.

As far back as the Columbine massacre, a WSJ/NBC poll showed that 67% of Americans saw "media sex and violence influencing children" as the most serious problem facing families. These people weren't all "social conservatives" and more recent polls don't indicate any lessening of concern.

Broadcasters rightly complain that cable and satellite aren't subject to the Broadcast Indecency Act, although some of them, like Sumner Redstone's Viacom, are in both broadcast and cable. Perhaps the most popular cable channel with children is MTV. There they see an average of nine sexual scenes per hour, almost three times the number adults see even on late night broadcasting. This is the product of media oligarchs who accept no responsibility for what they air. Indeed, in Mr. Redstone's 2001 book, "A Passion to Win," he boasts that MTV provides more than 50% of Viacom's cash flow, and adds: "I never had the slightest intention of attempting to influence the programming on MTV. ... Like a trusting parent I essentially gave MTV the keys to the car."

Many who object to the enforcement of decency standards in media with large child audiences angrily proclaim others to be puritans and assert the right to handle their own children's viewing. But there are millions of latchkey children without adult supervision for many hours. Congress rightly enacted the Indecency Act and would be wise to extend it to cable and satellite transmission reaching an undifferentiated audience, including children.

Richard W. Jencks Mill Valley, Calif. (Mr. Jencks is a former president of the CBS Broadcast Group and a former director of CBS Inc.)